What happens, asks James, if someone does not use his or her tongue correctly? Then nothing but terrible damage can be expected. James likens such a tongue to a small fire that eventually destroys a whole forest. When a person says something wrong, he or she does not know what the final outcome will be. One wrong statement about a person can destroy a lifetime’s work.
Moreover, such a tongue will damage all the misuser’s other faculties. He will need to use all of them in line with his wrong statement. Normally, when someone tells a lie, he has to use other lies in order to make his story seem credible. Before long, the memory, the decisions, the desires, the aspirations are all affected by the original wrong statement.
James develops the illustration and mentions that the stoker of such a fire is the devil. He is looking for flames that he can increase into a raging inferno. The tongue is an instrument he selects to use because it is very effective in a tragic way. He saw how effective it was in the Garden of Eden and he is aware of all the havoc that it has caused since.
James points to the fact that humans have been able to tame wild animals. Before they were tamed, they were dangerous. But none were beyond the power of a human to control. In contrast, the story of the human race proves that no human has been able to control the tongue. While this is discouraging, it is also encouraging because James seems to suggest that there is someone who can control our tongues. The someone is God.
It is not entirely clear who it was that the readers of James were cursing. Maybe it was their persecutors, the ones who had caused all the trouble that they were facing. We could see how they would be tempted to do so. Why was it wrong for them to use their tongues in such a way?
First, it is to forget who other people are. They are made in the image of God. Even their opponents have such a dignity. Although they were not acting like those made in the image of God, their behaviour did not excuse the believers from saying wrong words to them. Jesus had forbidden his disciples from cursing their opponents (Luke 6:28).
Second, it is to forget who God is. The titles that James uses of God here point to his authority. In ancient times, a lord and a father had complete and unquestionable authority. Perhaps James is telling his readers that God will provide for them, which is what a lord would do for his servants and what a father would do for his family. It was impossible for God to fail in this provision, which meant that the believers had no need to speak rashly about other people.
Third, it is impossible for a true Christian to use his tongue like this all the time. When James uses the illustrations of a spring, a fig tree, a grapevine and a salt pond, he is stressing that it is unnatural for something also to produce its opposite. James is not suggesting that a Christian may not occasionally misuse his tongue, but he is saying that a Christian will not consistently misuse his tongue. The implication is that he will use his tongue in the service of God.